June 8th, 2006
Gene Kelly
Anatomy of a Dancer

I didn’t want to move or act like a rich man. I wanted to dance in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets.
–Gene Kelly

Timeless, effortless, elegant and indelible as the 50th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain approaches, Gene Kelly’s body of work still thrives and still thrills. With films that also include An American in Paris, Summer Stock, On the Town and Brigadoon, Kelly revived the movie musical and redefined dance on screen, bringing with him an inspired sensibility and an original vitality. His choreography and his performances were relaxed but compelling, innovative but highly accessible and, ultimately, magical. He endeared himself to audiences and had a profound, eternal impact on the craft. Among the most beloved stars of Hollywood’s golden age, Kelly’s career remains one of the most surprising.

Solely responsible for creating a new approach to film musicals as performer, as choreographer and as director Kelly’s story has never been fully told. A creative genius fueled by single-mindedness, a volatile temper and narcissism, his need for perfection was uncompromising. A lasting influence in the worlds of film and dance, his first major film success came at the age of thirty and a short ten years later, he had made his final hit film.

At odds with MGM throughout his time there, Kelly fought to expand the concept and reach of motion picture musicals, always keenly aware that he was beginning his film career well past his prime as a dancer. By the mid-1950s, Kelly found himself at loose ends the genre he helped master now over a victim of changing musical tastes and economic restrictions. Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer offers a far more incisive view of the graceful and charming, beloved entertainer than that which the world has come to know.

Born in 1912 into a large middle-class Irish family in Pittsburgh, Kelly’s father was a traveling record salesman and his mother was possessed with a formidable determination to expose her children to the arts. By his teenage years, Gene and his brother Fred took over a failing dance school with their mother and their father slid deeper into alcoholism. After choreographing local shows and playing nightclubs with Fred, by 1938 Kelly felt he was good enough to buy a one-way ticket to New York City and eventually won the lead role in the original Broadway production of Pal Joey.

Seeing him on stage, MGM head Louis B. Mayer assured Kelly that the studio would like to sign him without so much as a screen test but, through a series of miscommunications, a screen test is requested and Kelly refused. Writing an acerbic letter to Mayer accusing him of duplicity, Kelly turned down the counteroffer and set the stage for a lifetime of acrimony between the two men. Ironically, Kelly was put under contract at Selznick International by Mayer’s son-in-law David O. Selznick, who had no interest in producing musicals and thought Kelly could exist purely as a dramatic actor. With no roles forthcoming, Kelly was loaned out to MGM to co-star with Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal. The film was a hit and Selznick subsequently sold the actor and his contract to MGM.

A series of mediocre roles followed and it was not until Kelly was loaned out to Columbia for 1944’s Cover Girl, with Rita Hayworth, that he became firmly established as a star. His landmark “alter ego” sequence, in which he partnered with himself, brought film dance to a new level of special effects. With Stanley Donen as his assistant, Kelly created a sense of the psychological and integrated story telling never before seen in a Hollywood musical. Realizing what they had, MGM refused to ever loan him out again, ruining Kelly’s opportunity to star in the film versions of Guys and Dolls, Pal Joey and even Sunset Boulevard. Back with producer Arthur Freed at MGM, Kelly continued his innovative approach to material by placing himself in a cartoon environment to dance with Jerry the Mouse in Anchor’s Aweigh yet another musical first.

During his marriage to the actress Betsy Blair, Kelly was radicalized and the couple became well known for their liberal politics. In 1947, when the Carpenters Union went on strike and the Hollywood studios were looking for an intermediary to intervene on their behalf, Kelly was chosen much to everyone’s surprise. He traveled back and forth from Culver City to union headquarters in Chicago for two months, mediating a strike that was costing the studios dearly. When a settlement was finally reached, Kelly was shocked to learn that the studios felt it was unfair and that they had been cheated by his siding with the strikers. Naively and genuinely trying to help and unaware of unstated expectations, underhanded tactics, and slush funds Kelly’s efforts only resulted in further exacerbating his relationship with Louis B. Mayer.

As the Blacklist Era began, Kelly along with Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, Danny Kaye, and others joined the Committee for the First Amendment. Hoping to diffuse the rising situation in Washington, DC, the group created a kind of whistle-stop national tour to present their views to the public prior to their command performance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Their efforts and press conference deteriorated into a fiasco and forced many of the stars to return to Hollywood and focus more on personal damage control than on their original idealistic intent.

More mediocre roles in “revue” films followed and Kelly’s frustrations mounted. He was, however, able to continue refining and showcasing his unique appeal and approach to new material with standout numbers in The Pirate and Words and Music, among other films. Determined from the start to differentiate himself from Fred Astaire, Kelly concerned himself with incorporating less ballroom dancing and more distinctly American athleticism into his choreography. Easter Parade and the chance to co-star with Judy Garland would have been Kelly’s opportunity to get away from what he considered substandard fare. But, in a show of bravado in his own backyard, Kelly broke his ankle during one of his infamously competitive volley ball games and, ironically, had to turn the film over to Fred Astaire.

Finally, Kelly and Stanley Donen were assigned their own film to co-direct 1949’s On the Town. In just five days of shooting selected sequences, they opened up the genre as no one had ever done before, creating another first a musical film shot on location. Followed by his two masterworks, An American in Paris, with its 17-minute ballet sequence, and Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly achieved icon status at the age of forty. In 1951, he was awarded a special Oscar for An American in Paris for his “extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography.”

And then the shift began. The musical era, as well as the Freed unit at MGM, wind to a close and Kelly’s last productions, including Brigadoon and the ambitious It’s Always Fair Weather, failed to appeal to either critics or the public. The latter film also brought a bitter end to his partnership with Stanley Donen. The two had made history together in their three previous films the only successful directorial collaboration in Hollywood, before or since. But professional and personal conflict lead to the breakup, including the fact that Donen’s wife, Jeanne Coyne, had fallen in love with Kelly. With Kelly’s own marriage to Betsy Blair in dissolution, both couples divorced and Kelly eventually married Coyne in 1960.

Small roles and directing jobs followed. Professional highlights included the Broadway musical “Flower Drum Song” and an original ballet he created for the Paris Opera. In the late 1950s, the television show OMNIBUS invited Kelly to create a documentary about the relationship between dance and athletics Dancing: A Man’s Game is considered one of the classic treasures from television’s golden age. However, the hit Kelly so badly craved and needed as director of the film Hello Dolly, eluded him, unable to compete in a market that now included such movies as Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider.

Jeanne Coyne died of leukemia in 1973, leaving Kelly to raise their two young children alone. In his determination to be a better father than he had been to his first daughter, Kelly refused all work that would take him away from Los Angeles, including the offer to direct the film Cabaret in Munich. He tried series television, guest appearances, children’s records and became a frequent advisor to younger filmmakers who were hoping to resurrect the movie musical. At his death in 1996, it was said of Kelly, “Just as he confirmed his place as one of the most important talents ever to work in film, he went downhill so fast you hardly saw him go.”

Yet, the potency of Kelly’s gifts, his remarkable achievements in dance and choreography and the creativity and charisma with which he exploded in a handful of films continues to endure and to inform. Gene Kelly’s final filmed words are from 1994’s That’s Entertainment III quoting Irving Berlin, he remarked: “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.” And, so too has Kelly himself. He was number 15 on AFI’s millennium list of most popular actors and Singin’ in the Rain has been voted the singular most popular movie musical of all time.

  • Coco

    I have been in love with Gene since I was four years old. I have watched Anatomy of a Dancer about 50 times and never get tired of it. It shows what a unique man he was!! Thanks for this wonderful look into his life.

  • Uburina

    Ilove him he is soooo Awesome I would soooo marry him!!!!!!!!!! I love th movies he does with Frank Sinatra Id Marry Him To!!!!!!!!!

  • Hope

    ME TOOO! I fell in love after watching Brigadoon and realized he had been my favorite actor in Singin’ in the rain…I’m only a teen but not embarrased to say I announce to all my friends his awesomeness although they don’t think so.

  • chocolate

    i loved him since i was 12345 years old

  • lovers15

    If I watched Gene Kelly in ‘Pirate; once, I watched it fifty times. In my lifetime,I plan to watch it fifty more.His acting is compelling. His high octane dancing is intoxicating and his chariisma magnetic.
    Today, In a world of such shows as ‘Dancing With The Stars He would thrive.
    There was never a Gene Kelly movie that I did not enjoy. He was Genius at his kraft. He simply has no equal.
    The best news is, He is immortalized, thanks to our wonderful technologies and archiving; where at the click of a remote. those who are no longer here with us and who are beloved, can still be enjoyed by millions, into eternity. And most importantly, the ability to continue to inspire future generations is preserved and can be passed on,down through time.
    Gene Kelly “Rules”.

  • Tina

    One word describes Gene Kelly….PERFECT!

  • lovely girl

    gene kelly is kool!!!

  • Kirsty

    His work is an amalgamation of a perfect artistic mind and determination. I thank my parents often that they brought me up to appreciate music & movies of a different era. I now show my son his works and see his fascination at the dancing.. to Gene I say thank you sir, you will not be forgotten.

  • Bob

    gene kelly is a master at dance and he went to my old school i thinks he is awesome

  • Lauren

    I am currently writing an in depth and extensive paper on Gene Kelly and his acting/directing in the works On the Town, and Signing in the Rain. This information helped a lot! Thanks!

  • barbara khan

    I don’t think I have so thoroughly enjoyed a movie as I did watching Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly. His talent burst from the screen, and his mixture of debonair and humor was melded so perfectly. I had heard of him, but because I never went to musicals, and was a hard die fan of drama, I missed out. Now here I am looking up his history and bio. I wish they made movies that captivating now.

  • Byrana

    Gene Kelly is perfection!

  • eva

    im doing a report for school and so far i really like him.

  • Karnoboy

    Hey wats up KELLY!!!!!!

  • canadianbacon

    im doing a project on gene kelly and i wish someone had some simple easy info for me.

  • chels

    there isnt enough on gene kelly im doing a project and cant find anything useful at al!!! :/ oh goshh

  • Kate

    I am only 15 years old and have watched musicals all my life.
    I love Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Donald O’Connor, and especially Gene.
    I have fallen in love with his movies and though I am only young and will never be able to appreciate him as much as he deserves (I would have had to be around when he was BIG!!) I promise I will try.

  • Sandy Nuvo

    Gene Kelly is a smooth and unique dancer. To bad I was born to late to be able to meet him!!! He would of been a honor

  • performer1013

    I’m writing my MA thesis (musicpology) on several of his numbers from Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. He knew how to express the music in a visual form and knew how to portray it on film and to give it the feel of a live performance. His talent was evident in For Me and My Gal. After its preview, a remark was made to Freed along the lines of “Never let me tell you how to make movies again”. This remark was made by someone who initially questioned Kelly starring opposite Judy Garland.

  • Cassie

    I love Gene Kelly & his work! The first musical I watched as a child was ‘Singin’ in The Rain’ and it inspired me to be part of the musical theatre industry. I have since been in the show ‘Singin’ in The Rain’ and am studying music theatre at university.

  • Katie Robinson

    I have been a fan of Gene Kelly since i was a small child, I guess that i can thank my mother for that as she loved all the old movies and we let us stay up on weekend to watch them. I miss the nights and weekends when you could turn on the tv and there would be an old classical movie on that you had watched so many times before that you could sit there and sing along to the songs. Ahhhh they do not make them like the use too hey?

  • Mary Anne Lewis

    My mother was a student of Gene Kelly’s at his dance school in Pittsburgh in the 30s. She’s 83 now and I wish she could the world the stories she tells me about him.

  • Joyce Bowers

    At 73 I can say I’ve loved him forever. Saw The Pirate at the shore a zillion times……followed his career and was mesmerized by his voice, both singing and speaking. How happy he made our lives!

  • Dorinne

    I have been watching many clips on you tube lately because of Evan and Ryan Kasprzak. The are doing wonderful work as instructors in the style of Kelly and other greats. The conversations going on between younger and older generations has been heartwarming. I look forward to a new generation of physically strong male dancers like them. I liked Kellys quote ” I wanted to dance in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets”. That was his appeal, you wanted to dance with him not just watch.

  • Doris

    We would like to know how Gene got the scar on his cheek? Anyone know?

  • Debbie Tomasovic

    How can we buy “Anatomy of a Dancer”?

  • Victoria

    OMG!!! I loooooooooooooove Gene Kelly! One of my fave movies from him is… ALL OF THEM!!! THAT MAN CAN DANCE… coming from a dancer myself. I love in ‘An American in Paris’ which is one of my favorite movies of all time, the song ‘I’ve got rhythm’ when he taps is AMAZING!

  • Charlia Rhette

    I always wanted to meet him. He was a great man and vey fine. That BODY was like a gymnastic, but so more better. He is KING of dance. There will never be another Gene Kelly. Charlia

  • Lisa

    Caught American in Paris on TV last night.No matter that I own it, I still sat & watched. What a talent! Miss him so.

  • Dave

    I just watched Singing in the Rain again. I was as moved today with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor dancing together as I was when I watched the film in the theaters as a teen during the 50’s. Just GREAT!

  • shawna

    At home this holiday season with a bunch of teenagers and what movies do they want to watch???Singing in the Rain and an American in Paris! Cheers to you Mr Kelly!

  • Hal Pritzker

    It’s always been my theory that the movie “Marjorie Morningstar” never was the public success it might have been was because nobody wanted to see Gene Kelly—with all that magnificent film and stage work behind him—play a big-fish-in-a-little-pond loser, as was his Noel Airman character in the film. Gene never should have put himself in that position by taking the demeaning role. Rocky Marciano, who never lost a professional fight, later forced a director to alter his tv character’s demise to being shot, rather than beaten in a “fight” with the show’s hero. “I never lost in the ring, and I certainly wasn’t going to have it done on tv…even if it was only make-believe,” said Rocky. Gene should have used the same logic for “Morningstar”.

  • KWyatt

    Since I was 11 Gene Kelly was my hero and inspiration. I’m now 51. He replied to my letters and advised me to continue studying so i owe him an awful lot. He was and will always be my number one. I wish we knew more about what his children are doing now ?

  • Nikolia

    This immortal actor Gene Kelly, got me well hooked on musicals from a very early age!! What an athletic dancer,& for me simply the best of all time. No one will be ever able to replace him & his movies. His charisma & smile will live on forever in my heart & mind..

  • Smiles :)

    Gene Kelly was deemed by some a hard and cruel man because of his work ethic but in his moves and movies he displays a sense of energy not captured by his fellow tappers or dancers. I can personally say that Gene was a phenomenal genius.

  • Neville Meyers

    An excellent overview of Kelly’s breadth and depth as an artist. Thank you for your insights! Moreover,as an Australian, – I particularly admired Kelly’s political stand for both the Hollywood workers as well as his Anti-McCarthyism.

  • JANET KLINE

    GENE KELLY WAS THE ABSOLUTE BEST DANCER THERE EVER WAS, OR WILL EVER BE. HE DID IT WITH SUCH STYLE AND ELEGANCE, AND MADE IT LOOK SO EASY! HIS CHARMING GOOD LOOKS AS WELL, COMPLETED THE PACKAGE.

  • Smiles :)

    Just got to wondering with all the Olympic frenzy why they didn’t they create a dance sport for it or something. that was just on my mind.

    GO KERRS FOR PAIRS !!!

  • Dorothy Robinson

    I loved watching Gene Kelly as a little girl. I couldn’t appreciate Fred Astaire until much later. Gene was so much sexier, I thought, even when I was only 10 years old.
    When you say you “love” an actor, I think it means that they have become dear to you in some way so that you always want them to be happy and healthy and so on.
    Both dancers had, to my mind, integrity, authenticity and winsomeness.as well as remarkable talent.
    There are lots of ways a person can be a star. I think a star is someone whose place in the story seems to bring the plot forward, a mover, a shaker, a whatever you call it.
    I loved both men. Their movies still appear charming to me. They had a whole lot of talent and what they did was romantic and they were so beautiful to watch.
    I’m an old lady now, and they are part of what I love about old movies. Newer stars are charming and I admire them and I admire them just as much. Bruce Willis is a version of Gene Kelly and John Cusack has both a frailty and wireliness that sometimes remind me of Fred Astaire. God bless them all, living and gone.

  • Gertrude

    I love him… we made out after the peremiere of sining in the rain!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Elaine Truesdale

    How can I find out about the dance school that Gene Kelly started off in…? The reason being, my grandmother had a dance school in Pitsburgh and my Uncle Bobby danced with Gene Kelly…I want to know if it was my grandmothers. can anyone help me?

  • Jeanne

    Perfection in motion. Unforgettable. Legend.

  • Laura

    this information that has been suplied had been very helpful towards the essa that i had to write for my dancing homework! i have never seen a more amazing tap dancer as he!!! i love him!

  • Vince

    Like a disproportionate number of actors, Kelly was a shrimp. He was barely taller than Debbie Reynolds, Gloria DeHaven, Jane Powell, and Judy Garland, all 5″1″. I like to ask people, when Kelly’s name comes up, what he had in common with Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin. Answer – they were all 5′4″.

  • donna

    didn’t know that Danny Kaye was on that “Black List” but Mr. Gene Kelly is a truly wonderful man

  • Alice

    this is very interesting, i will give it that. I never knew that this was such a huge deal. I saw Gene Kelly in “Dancing in the Rain” His preformence was fantastic, and he has inspired hundreds of others to follow their dreams

  • Lonnie C Dyer

    If you really want to see GENE KELLY wacth THE THREE MUSETEERS & see a dancer move BURT LANCASTER moved the same way they were both a plesure to wacth

    L.C.DYER

  • Elizabeth Hawkins in Raleigh, NC

    Mr. Kelly you were and are still the greatest. Compared to the stars we have today, you rise far above. I wrote a letter of appreciation in 1992 and received an autographed photograph with personal message included . To this day I’m honored to own it and sometimes think I might have been born into the wrong generation.Alot of men think that dance is unmanly , well, this is an example that dance and a little emotion doesn’t make a man effeminate. Especially if the dancer is great. Thanks for bringing so much joy to people everywhere.

  • ally

    he was a great man let him live on forever.

  • Bobbi Mapstone

    Has “Dancing: A Man’s Game been released in DVD form. I saw this last spring and really want to purchase a copy. This man was a phenomenal is so many ways. Please advise. Thanks

  • Barbara Shore

    I too would like to buy dancing:A Man’s Game on DVD

  • Mary Attitude

    I’ve always enjoyed the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, especially as a child born in the 1930’s era.
    The accomplished, distinct styles of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, escaped any comparison as It is thought
    that each dancer had a distinct dance style and dance presentation. This thought should make Mr. Kelly happier in that he strove to be different and distant from Mr. Astaire’s dance style and dance presentation. Albeit, perhaps Mr. Astaire had a similar dance goal in spite of the two dancers’ friendly rivalry. My Gene Kelly fave, his marvelous dance number to the tune of “Singin in the Rain,” the opening dance number of the splendid musical film, “Singin In the Rain.” May Mr. Kelly “rest in pace,” rather “rest in peace.”

    Kudos to Chicago’s dedicated ballet dance teacher, Rachel Burton, for the class’ writing assignment about some one or something with special meaning in the field of dance.

  • Max ‘Tiger’ Batista

    Gene Kelly – one more word to describe him: UNIQUE. An American in Paris in 1951 (freshman in HS) opened my eyes to many things – vigorous dance, jazz, George Gershwin, Leslie Caron, [clean] romance. I have watched it countless times, literally. It feels new every time. Curiously, it was NOT filmed in Paris! ‘Singing in the Rain’ – such a silly movie, such a silly premise – and yet – pure gold treasure of fun and joy. They don’t make them like Gene any more. Matter of fact, they never did. What a privilege to have been exposed to such a contribution to world culture. My daughter and I had the opportunity to see him in an appearance in Atlanta. Like he said… “the song has ended… but the melody lingers”. Gene, all of us thank you.

  • Irwin Miller

    Fortunately for all of us who love film musicals and the marvelous work done at MGM by the members of the Arthur Freed unit, Gene Kelly’s outstanding work in the innovative “An American In Paris” directed by Vincente Minnelli and “Singin In The Rain” co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, will live forever in the hearts and minds of his fans. Although Kelly was celebrated during his life by receiving the prestigious American Film Institute Life Achievement Award and the Academy Award for career achievement, how gratified he would be to see the 60th Anniversary re-release in theaters and commemorative bluray editions of his Singin In The Rain and new editions of his other great films. His work in many other films such as “Cover Girl”, “On The Town” ” “Brigadoon” and “It’s Always Fair Weather” has stood the test of time.

  • IDance:-)

    Gene has influenced my work in the arts and theater. I am still very young but he has been an important part of my life. He was a very “cool” dude. I only wish I could have been alive when he was performing and experience him in person somehow

  • CM Millen

    For the record, Gene was nearly 5′ 9″
    He was a gem, a genius, a brilliant and wonderful man. Rest in Peace, Gene.

Salinger

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